When I’m at the corporate office in midtown Manhattan, I have what I need to do my job effectively. Well, mostly. For one thing, I don’t have a room with a door I can close. But telephone-based interruptions come with such frequency that my noisy surroundings aren’t the bottleneck to peacefully and quietly getting my work done. Okay, that first sentence was a lie. But it was a well-meaning lie. And in the end, isn’t that the real truth? The answer is: no.
When I’m at the home office in upstate Manhattan, I have my pick of rooms with doors I can close. One of them has a 30” monitor and a whiteboard. Another has a recliner. Another has a burr grinder, a temperature-controlled electric kettle, and an AeroPress. The sun streams in from the south and west, setting over the George Washington Bridge, New Jersey Palisades, Hudson River, Fort Washington Park, and what is by far the largest of three better-than-bean-bag chairs.
It’s not as idyllic as it sounds. Construction — with a particular emphasis on jackhammers — has been proceeding right outside for at least a year. At what feels like the exact same time, the unit above mine became inhabited by a small but heavy-footed child who has appropriated the railroad apartment’s hallway as a training ground for the 2028 Summer Olympics.
But every jackhammer and sprint trial must occasionally come to a fleetingly temporary halt, and on the best days my home office is a truly great working environment, with near-ideal conditions for accomplishing tasks that require solitude and concentration. And on more typical days, when my schedule’s dotted with meetings and the pavement’s dotted with machines, the home office still wins for utility: while on a call, I can simultaneously be looking out the window at what passes for nature in these parts, or folding laundry, or pacing freely — and, I hope, lightly — to induce my mental gears to turn. The corporate office is superior for exactly two purposes: spending quality time with coworkers, and pressing the power switch on the computer at my desk. Otherwise it’s noisier, distractier, further away from my softest pieces of furniture, and nowhere near persnickety enough about coffee.
For the last several years I’ve been working from many locations, not just these two. I started working from anywhere because I could; I’ve continued working from anywhere because I’ve needed to.
Working from anywhere is not new. There exist successful companies designed around the idea. The organizational design typically includes such features as asynchronous communication and distributed version control. These working conditions reliably provide for the basic needs of the self-motivated programmer, enabling productivity in a wide range of environments and timezones.
I work for a company designed around employees who work from anywhere — but it’s not a software company, my job is only occasionally to be a programmer, and the working conditions available to me necessarily reflect very different organizational constraints. So the lessons of GitHub, 37signals, and their ilk have been of limited applicability to my situation. By trial and error, I’ve come to understand that there isn’t a single environment that best enables my productivity across a wide range of tasks, but rather environmental choices for me to make that depend primarily on what I’m trying to get done. Armed with a set of highly portable mix-and-match tools, I’m productive from nearly anywhere.
Besides the corporate office in midtown and my home office uptown, I work fairly frequently from such locations as:
Having the option to work from places that aren’t “the office” is freeing. When I choose to exercise the option, I’m choosing to manage my work needs using my personal resources. As this post will illustrate, I’m comfortable making that commitment. When it’s up to me how to get my work done, I get more done.
My professional time is divided between two modes of operation:
My company has a meeting-heavy culture. My team is expected to deliver software anyway. I’ve been throwing my body in front of oncoming meetings with the hope that in so doing, I’m saving the rest of the team from my fate. It mostly works.
A few of my meetings have a critical mass of people in the same building, or are one-on-ones. Naturally, I strongly prefer to attend these in person whenever possible. Most of my meetings are conference calls involving people from multiple locations. They frequently involve observing someone’s shared screen over the network, or sharing mine with others.
A great meeting can lead to insights I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own. When this happens, it’s gratifying to be part of a conversation that led to a better outcome. In the aggregate, however, meetings take me out of the mental state in which I may arrive at insights. This wouldn’t matter much if it weren’t part of my job to be insightful, but it is, so it does.
When the task to be done requires extended concentration, I need a block of time during which I feel confident I won’t be interrupted. During business hours, I approximate this by blocking out the time on my calendar (with a self-scheduled meeting!) and not opening instant messages or email. Our culture of meetings ensures that this is only an approximation, because new meetings can — and often do — appear on my calendar at any time, such as at the last minute. The phone can always ring. And if I’m in the corporate office, my shoulder can always receive a tap. So on the occasions when I must concentrate in order to be efficient and careful, I schedule the task for non-business hours. In this regard, the high cost of meetings is mitigated somewhat by the flexibility to work from home.
Go to the office (usually midtown, occasionally downtown).
Stay at the home office. As needed, make really good coffee, look out the window, pace up and down the hall, etc.
Rejoice, for this day is special. Block out the calendar. Stay at the home office (or, on occasion, join a coworker at his preferred coffeeshop). Think through designs and plans and/or write code.
Work from Bekki’s place, in a room where I can close the door. Make my own coffee.
Work on campus at the open workspace in the business school. For coffee and snacks, go down the hall. For meetings, duck into one of the small private conference rooms with doors that lock.
Rejoice, for this day is special. Block out the calendar. If it’s nice out, maybe stay at Bekki’s place and spend some of it outside. Otherwise, go to a coffeeshop. Think through designs and plans and/or write code.
If no meetings, work from parents’ house or public library (both of which have coffee). If meetings, go to the Northbrook branch office, convince them I’m really from corporate, and set up in an unused room.
Bring IP phone from home office to Germany. Set up a desk upstairs. For fancy coffee, go downstairs. If meetings, beware timezones: I may not be off the phone and able to sleep till after midnight.
For all professional purposes: good coffee (or at least coffee).
For quick phone calls: company-issued cell phone, reliable cell coverage.
For basic phone meetings: all of the above, minimal background noise, privacy.
For presentations or deeper discussions: all of the above, hands-free headset, laptop, reliable low-latency network access.
For designing, planning, and programming: laptop, reliable low-latency network access, external display.
For working in noisy places: all my music, over-the-ear headphones.
The 11” MacBook Air is a perfect fit for buses, trains, and planes: the screen is short enough to tilt far back enough to see comfortably, and the keyboard is far enough away to type comfortably. At a desk, the iPad with Air Display adds screen real estate. All of the above gadgets (minus the desk phone and desk) fit into my Tom Bihn Ristretto. If I need the desk, I use the Victorinox Architecture 2.0 Big Ben backpack (link is to 3.0) instead. If I just need the laptop and some tunes, I carry the InCase Sling Sleeve.
Since I can bring my own desk and internet access, the technical limit to how long I could work while sitting in the middle of a field had been the battery life of my laptop. No longer: I just upgraded from the late-2010 MacBook Air to the mid-2013 (which is what prompted me to write this post). I don’t usually work from fields, though, so the practical upshot is that when I go to a coffeeshop for the day, I no longer need to worry about bringing a power cord or finding an outlet.
Working from everywhere requires discipline, internal motivation, self-observation, and control over your environment. If you know what you need and you know you’ve got it, you can do anything. Go forth and be productive!
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I noticed that my progress, as measured by the weights I’m controlling for between 4 and 7 super-slow repetitions, had slowed. This was expected: as the weights increase, effort and intensity also increase, and so should recovery time. Strength gain isn’t my primary goal this year; jettisoning 30 more pounds is. But since raising my resting metabolic rate via efficiently induced muscular hypertrophy is — thus far — my primary change of strategy for reaching my primary goal, and since my weight loss has been slow lately, I needed to change my strength-training routine.
Rather than go to the gym less frequently, I’ve been continuing to go twice a week, alternating between my original workout routine (largest muscle groups) and a second one (smaller and/or complementary muscle groups).
After 10 more workouts:
One more slow, controlled crunch and I’ll start holding a 5-pound plate during that exercise. Two more slow, controlled reps on the leg press and I’ll have to go even slower and controllier.
After the first 5 workouts:
I’ve actually been going slightly more often than twice per week: every three days, like clockwork, to mesh the gears of my workout and travel schedules. I’m operating on the theory that the recovery interval to be concerned with is the one between identical workouts, in which case 6 days’ rest is plenty more than the 3.5 I’d been getting before, and so it’s worth it (for now) to squeeze in trips to the gym reasonably tightly.
Having just completed routine #2, I’m off to Boulder for a week in a rented house with parents, sister, and niece. (It’s a regular work week for me. Too much going on right now to take vacation.) Then the parents and I will road-trip to Las Vegas, where I’ll be attending the Scrum Gathering.
Aside from the numbers on my workout sheets, there’s also the number on my scale. After holding steady for a couple months in the low 230s, I finally reached my first sub-230 weigh-in on Friday morning. According to the burndown chart, I’m still on pace to reach 200 pounds by January 1, but only because I got off to such a quick start. To stay on pace, I’ll need to consistently drop a few pounds each month. If May goes by and that hasn’t started happening, it will again be time to change my routine.
Ignoring the numbers entirely, I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I feel good while doing it and for days afterward, and I’m continuing to notice improvements to my weight distribution and overall shape. The only reason I would consider stopping is if it were somehow at odds with my 2013 weight loss goal. Based on my reasoning and observations, high-intensity strength training alone may perhaps be insufficient exercise to deliver the goal on schedule, but the only way it could be an impediment is if the hypothetical other exercise that does suffice is also of fairly high intensity and has to happen daily. In which case I’d still lift, just less often.
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Upon arrival in Munich Monday afternoon, after a second straight day of long train rides, I headed straight for the Englischer Garten. The sun cooperated, so I recuperated at the giant beer garden around the Chinesischer Turm.
There’s lots more to Munich than giant helpings of pig and beer, but neither are the experiences in any way misleading. Just to be sure, Tuesday’s lunch on the outskirts of the Viktualienmarkt was another Schweinshax’n. I atoned with lots of walking: from Viktualienmarkt to the Deutsches Museum, through a fairly high percentage of the interior, then by feel (a fairly inefficient route, as it turned out) to the Neue Pinakothek, discovering that it had just closed for the evening, crossing the street to the Alte Pinakothek, wending my way through most of it, and then by feel (again inefficiently) through the streets between the universities until I found a take-out döner for dinner. By day’s end, my feet and knees sorely wanted me to know that I’d bitten off a bit more than I ought to have chewed. As though I weren’t fully aware!
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Greetings from sunny Prague, where summer is officially underway. The same is true for me, having visited friends in Baltimore and Cleveland (the latter a quick little road trip with Judith) and now doing more of the same this side of the pond. It’s turning into a travel-filled summer. A few days after this trip ends, Judith and I are off for another long weekend drive, this time to Massachusetts; the whole middle of July puts me back in Ohio; I got into KlezKanada, so there goes a week in late August; a summer camp reunion and a visit to the parental homestead may open-face sandwich that week. And somewhere amid all this, I have work to be doing, which is why I’m here: I’ll be presenting my Google Summer of Code project — currently no more than a series of twinkles in my eye — at pkgsrcCon in Berlin next weekend. But first, some travel notes from the train to Prague.
South of Dresden the rails trace the path of the Elbe, squeezed in against the increasingly vertical left valley wall. Across the river there’s enough perspective to see rolling hills of dense green, trees filling every possible tree-spot. Occasionally sheer rock faces poke out, or the odd crag. The river towns appear alternately charming and kitschy (Schöna in particular the latter) but there’s no arguing with the fundament on which they sit. The signage at Bad Schandau station includes “východ” along with “Ausgang”; at Děčín, the first stop into Czechia, a field trip boards and the test begins: how well do I hear this language after 2.5 somewhat lackluster years of study and the last semester off? So far, a tiny bit well, which is more than expected. Maybe subjecting myself to a few minutes’ strafing of first-year audio exercises before Dresden helped. When one of the youngsters asked the others “Máte tužku?” I wanted to reach into my bag and produce a pencil, just to prove the point. The land flattens out a ways into the Czech Republic, and thankfully so do my travels for the night. Off to Bratislava tomorrow.
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It’s official: I’m headed to Barcelona at the end of April for pkgsrcCon 2007, a technical conference I’ve attended twice previously (Vienna, Prague). Flight and hotel are done deals. All that remains is to prepare my talks — most likely, knowing my goofy self, somewhere above the Atlantic.
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